If you’ve been around Christian circles for a while and if you’ve been fortunate enough to be around regular evangelistic preaching you’ve probably heard the analogy of the railroad story.
But the story has real problems. But the problems stem not from the story being too different to reality but because it’s too similar.
It goes something like this:
A father worked down by the river at a bridge. The bridge was a railroad that crossed over a river. The bridge had to be opened at regular intervals to allow tall boats through that couldn’t normally fit.
One day the father brought his son to work. At a certain point in time the bridge was raised to allow some boats through. It was due to be closed so that the express train full of passengers could cross in a few minutes time. The father then noticed that his son was playing and exploring down in the gears that closed the bridge. The father was distraught.
If he closed the bridge the train would cross safely but his son would be crushed to death. But if he kept the bridge up then the train full of passengers would be killed but the son would live.
The father, with tears streaming down his face, pulled the lever and closed the bridge and the train crossed safely.
And God sacrificed his son to save us.
So of course the story doesn’t exactly line up to reality at a number of points. The Son is an unwitting victim rather than a willing participant. The Son is an oblivious idiot who was doing the wrong thing at the time. Of course the Father and Son are two separate persons rather than two distinct but not separate members of the Trinity. The Sons death has no punitive aspect. All the passengers on the train are functionally innocent before the Father. All the passengers on the train are saved regardless of how the respond to the Son’s sacrifice. The filial aspect of the salvation is non-existent in that the passengers have no relationship with Father or Son and probably never will. And we could keep going.
But, the reason the story is unhelpful isn’t because of all these things. The problem’s not really that the story isn’t totally accurate. It’s an analogy. It’s not supposed to be totally accurate. That’s how an analogy works. It’s supposed to be a different scenario that when likened with the true reality highlights certain features of that reality while clearly not others.
When Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a net that catches fish both good and bad in Matthew 13 he’s not saying the entry onto God’s Kingdom is random or that whether you make it in is based on your physiology and market resale value. It’s not supposed to line up completely, and you could tear it apart as to how it badly misrepresents the truth at numerous points. But it’s an analogy.
So why is the railroad analogy so different? Why is it so unhelpful?
I think the problem isn’t that it’s not similar enough but that it’s too similar. It lines up at too many points.
There’s a loving Father. There’s a Son who is loved. There’s a death. The death is a saving death. The death saves people.
The problem is that too many of the points in the story overlap, and so even if the point of the story is to merely communicate the Father’s generosity in giving His Son for others it’s still misleading. It requires too many points of overlap to be filtered out. Too many of the central players line up between story and reality and so there’s too much collateral damage to people’s understanding of reality.
Whereas in Jesus’ story people aren’t fish and God and his angels aren’t fishermen, so the point of overlap is clear: some are in and some are out so make sure you’re in.
Seeing as how Penal Substitutionary Atonement has been, for at least four centuries, the heart and soul of evangelical preaching and piety, of course ways of preaching and explaining it are going to grow up that are, as JI Packer would say, “devotionally evocative without always being theologically rigorous”.
Whenever I have heard this discussed someone inevitably chimes in with the “That story led to me becoming a Christian.” As though that was sufficient reason why it’s valuable and why it’s helpful. But the comment always strikes me as irrelevant. I mean praise God that he used it to bring someone home, but that doesn’t make it a helpful analogy.
I know of a couple who came to Christ after their child was hit by a bus and killed. Praise God that he turned an horrific tragedy and brought some profound and eternal good from it. But I’m not gonna build infanticide into my evangelism strategy. My ministry philosophy doesn’t include a budget line for a full-time assassin.
Or part-time for that matter.
Just because God, in his mercy, used this analogy to bring someone home doesn’t mean the analogy is good. I think God saves people in spite of this analogy. It just causes too much collateral damage.